TOKYO—In the cramped but orderly lounge of his sixth-floor office in the tony Aoyama district, novelist Haruki Murakami is talking about the diffuse nature of evil in our post-Cold War world. He muses on Aum Shinrikyo, the Japanese religious cult that poisoned the Tokyo subways in 1995, Al Qaeda and the numerous dead in New York, and on Worm, a monster at the center of the earth with atrophied eyes and a brain that has “turned to jelly as he sleeps,” who absorbs and stores the world’s hatred. Worm threatens to unleash total destruction in Murakami’s calmly bizarre “Super-Frog Saves Tokyo,” one of six stories in his new collection, After the Quake (Knopf), in which a resolutely unremarkable man is called upon to battle the darkest forces of evil in a soulless city—by a giant, urbane amphibian.
Quake‘s narratives are superficially linked by Japan’s twin horrors of 1995: the January earthquake in Murakami’s childhood hometown of Kobe, and the subway attacks two months later in Tokyo, his hometown since college. But neither event appears directly; all the action takes place in February, the month in the middle. Instead, it’s the characters’ discovery of their hollowness, and their often uncertain attempts to fill it, that infuse the book with its meditative power.
After the Quake may be Murakami’s most successful marriage yet of a burgeoning social realism—acquired, he says, after interviewing the victims and perpetrators of Aum terrorism for his nonfiction Underground (vol. 1, 1997; vol. 2, 1998), published as a single volume in the U.S. last year—and the fantastical realms of spirit and mind. But as he turns from the fictional Worm to the very nonfictional Aum and Al Qaeda, Japan’s most relevant living international man of letters suddenly looks troubled. “Of course we have to fight evil . . . ” he says, trailing off and gazing down at his folded hands. “But it’s within us. And the worst possible response is . . . ” Murakami pronounces a word in his otherwise mellifluous English that, after several attempts, I still can’t decipher.
He slips out of the microphone I’ve pinned to his crimson T-shirt and dashes out of the room. At 53, Murakami runs marathons, swims daily, and has the athletic moves of a man who doesn’t think about movement. He returns with an open Webster’s, fingertip firmly beneath the mystery word. “Intolerance.”
“Yes.” He closes the dictionary and eases back into chair and microphone. “How do you say it? Intolerance. Yes, that’s the worst possible response.”
The day before we meet, Murakami’s 10th novel, Kafka on the Shore, fills Japanese bookstores in a two-volume set, a major work only slightly shorter than his three-volume magnum opus, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle (1994-95; published in the U.S. by Knopf in 1997). Kafka has already sold 200,000 copies in Japan, he tells me, and he is responding directly to readers via a special Web site (www.kafkaontheshore.com). Told in the voice of a 15-year-old runaway in a chaotic world of falling fish and incipient terror, Kafka interweaves a boy’s life with that of a Japanese World War II veteran rendered illiterate by a coma, who upon partial recovery can communicate only with cats. The title is meant to represent the borderline between the conscious and the unconscious, land and sea, living and dead. “It’s my ‘road movie’ novel,” Murakami says. “The characters are always moving, in Japan and in the nowhere-land, the underground. They live in a world of violence, and they know they have to fight it.”
Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World (1985; Knopf, 1991), Murakami’s brilliant rendering of Jungian shadow worlds, is Kafka‘s precursor. “I’ve been trying to write a sequel to that book for a long time,” Murakami says now. Jay Rubin, his Harvard-based English translator and author of the recent Haruki Murakami and the Music of Words (Harvill), calls Wonderland “Murakami’s most elaborate exploration of the relationship of the brain to the world it perceives,” and says it remains his favorite novel.
Murakami’s first novel, Hear the Wind Sing (1979), won him Gunzo magazine’s prize for rookie writers and launched his literary career. His fifth novel, Norwegian Wood (1987; Knopf, 2000), won him 2 million readers in Japan—and launched him into a white-hot spotlight. Murakami’s reputation for aloofness grew over the years as he studiously avoided the media and literary circles—partly, he says now, because he was shunned by Japanese literary critics for producing a bestseller. Rubin recounts how Nobel laureate Kenzaburo Oe lambasted Murakami for “failing to appeal to intellectuals with models for Japan’s future.” With his interspersed references to American popular culture (the Beach Boys, McDonald’s, etc.) Murakami was accused of being batakusai, or “stinking of butter”: too American to be purely Japanese.
“They hated me,” he says of his critics, “and so I left.”
His success, and the attention it brought, propelled him abroad, and his own life might be the subject of a road movie if he weren’t so frankly unimpressed by it. He left Kobe for Tokyo at 18, and left Japan for Europe and America as soon as he could, he says, “because I wanted to write something international. And I still do. But I’ve just been feeling insecure since I was 20, and that’s all I’ve been trying to express. Now the entire world is feeling insecure.”
The roots of Murakami’s insecurity, his outsider status, are local. When the Tokyo anti-war protests collapsed at the end of the ’60s, and the formerly anti-authoritarian peaceniks quickly and obediently joined Japan’s large corporations, the young Murakami felt betrayed. To avoid becoming another salaryman, he borrowed money and opened a jazz bar with his wife.
But his sense of imminent disappointment amid persistent dreams found its way into his fiction. And now Murakami suddenly matters a lot. The author of over 30 books (fiction and nonfiction) in his native language, 10 of which have appeared in English, and the Japanese translator of such American notables as Capote, Fitzgerald, and now Salinger (he has just completed the newest Japanese edition of The Catcher in the Rye, a novel he calls, “very dark—the author can’t decide if he likes open systems or closed systems, freedom or control”), is virtually everywhere.
“Murakami is the first Japanese novelist I know who has been able to straddle East and West,” Japan-based writer Pico Iyer tells me from his hotel room in Kyoto. “He disarms us by writing as if he were just down the neighborhood in Madison, Wisconsin, or San Antonio. He calls upon those elements of the global consciousness—pasta, Charles Mingus, Raymond Carver—that seem to float above any particular ground and so speak to Everyplace.”
A week after our meeting, Murakami flies to New York. The first thing he will do is lay flowers at ground zero. Then it’s a mix of rare public appearances: a reading, an interview, a signing. “Then I’ll go to Academy Records and . . . what’s that store near the Strand?”
“Footlights?” I proffer.
“Yes. I want to buy some records. There are some musicians, you’ll buy anything they make, right? They never disappoint you.” He folds his hands again and squints at the glaring Tokyo skyline. “That’s what I want to be, I think. Someone who never disappoints.”
Murakami will appear at Shine on September 27 at 7 p.m. and at the Union Square Barnes & Noble on September 28 at 11 a.m. For more information, call 1-877-847-TNYF.